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Now Stare Directly At This Eclipse Story

After weeks of anticipation — and writing about it! — the total solar eclipse finally arrived in the U.S. FiveThirtyEight staff were fanned out across the country, hoping to bask in totality. Here are their dispatches from beneath the corona.

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska in the minutes before totality felt like the prelude to a tornado. The colors of the world were too saturated. The wind was too still. Silence sidled up behind me and wrapped me in muscle-tensed arms. And then my best friend whispered, “I gotta do it. I’m gonna look at it. You can’t stop me.”

It was a defiant stand against collective wisdom and common sense. We, the media, had spent all month talking about not looking directly at the sun. We, personally, had spent all day talking about not looking directly at the sun. Yesterday, the front-page story in the Lincoln Journal Star — entitled “Yes, looking at an eclipse can burn your eyes” — was about a man who damaged his retinas during the 1963 eclipse. All this, it turned out, was not enough. And a glance at Twitter during the eclipse suggests we weren’t the only ones who felt this way. The warnings merely made the looking more necessary, more delicious — like pulling a scab away from your flesh inch by furtive inch.

Why do we want so badly to stare at a thing we have been told repeatedly to not stare at? In 2011, some researchers at Florida State University asked essentially the same question about the High Place Phenomenon — that tingly, twitchy urge that fills your feet when faced with a ledge you know you should not jump from. Prior to this paper, psychologists had speculated that the call of the edge was an expression of suicidality. But out of a group of 431 undergraduates, the Florida researchers could find no evidence of that. The urge to jump was common, and distributed pretty evenly across the population. Suicidal or not, flinging yourself from a cliff is a desire we all seem share.

Just like the urge to turn our delicate eyes towards a burning sun. The 2011 paper could only speculate why we do things like this. Maybe the desire to do something stupid and dangerous reaffirms the will to live? Or maybe it’s more fundamental than that. Some collective personal shit we’ve been trying to work through since the days long ago when somebody wrote a story about people who couldn’t help but eat the one fruit they were told to leave alone. Maybe this is us. Maybe this is human nature. Anyway, I hope my editor accepts that as an excuse when I can’t see tomorrow. — Maggie Koerth-Baker

CARBONDALE, Ill. — We left Memphis at five this morning and drove until we reached the southern tip of Illinois. Nashville had been an option but we chose Carbondale because the area around Carbondale would be the spot with the longest duration of totality in all of the United States — two minutes and 38 seconds.

We saw it start. The moon edged across the sun, slowly, almost imperceptibly, like two coins. As though a cold dime were sliding over a molten, copper penny.

Amtrak had a special eclipse deal where the train from Chicago stopped in Carbondale. We met a woman from Rockford, Illinois, who had done just that, and Amtrak employees were marveling at the spectacle on their work break. As clouds moved and merged and offered new glimpses, I heard gasps and giggles. One woman cried out, “It’s beautiful!”

But we didn’t see the actual totality. The dark clouds, which we’d hoped would shift away in a suspenseful turn, remained. Our cosmic concert, at least from our corner of Carbondale, was rained out. True, it got dark. Gloaming dark. And the cicadas, in their confusion, made a fabulous ruckus. The air grew noticeably colder. We saw two drones hovering above, but no corona. I’d always known there was a chance of this happening, but the disappointment was palpable. (Although Tommy and Elliot didn’t seem to mind. They’d taken to an elderly man who began explaining the nature of clouds to them. They were mesmerized.)

The next solar eclipse will also cross Carbondale again in 2024. I can’t say for certain I’ll try my luck here a second time, but I’ll try somewhere. I know I will. — Christine Laskowski

PADUCAH, Ky. — It was purple. I don’t often think of the sun in this color — my favorite views of it, from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, show a flame-throwing hellscape of orange and crimson. But its upper layer, the chromosphere, was purple — an improbable shade of violet trending toward neon. The rest was gone behind the moon. The corona surrounding the hole in the sky was pale, but not ghostly like I’d imagined — it was creamy. It looked like the color of hot water, fresh off the boil for tea, right after you mistakenly add the milk before steeping.

I spent the last nine months researching total eclipses, listening to people who travel to the ends of the Earth to witness them, and writing about them. I spent almost as long imagining what this one would be like for me and my family. I had several dreams about cloudy weather, or missing it because I was stuck on Gchat, and at least one dream about what the corona would look like. That dream was dominated by my fear of flames surrounding the hole in the sky. I thought it would be scary, or at least awesome, in the literal sense of that word. Instead, it was friendly.

When the diamond ring appeared, in the instant before totality, I held up my binoculars to get a better view, but I couldn’t focus because my hands were shaking too much. But I wasn’t scared — I was so happy. The sun was not a blazing orb of hellfire. It was quiet, empyrean light, glazed with my favorite color and swaddled in creamy haze.

I hoped this eclipse would give me a new view of the solar system, and it did, just not the one I expected. I like this version. Space isn’t empty; it’s filled with that milky haze, and we’re all swaddled in it, too. It’s friendly. It’s home. — Rebecca Boyle

CASPER, Wy. — On my run this morning, my dog and I were chased by a wolf. It was totally boring compared to watching the eclipse.

I’d been anticipating and planning for today’s total solar eclipse for years, and in the week leading up to the event, I’d started to have nightmares about something going wrong (cloudy skies would be the worst). I had another fear — that I’d built such great expectations for the eclipse that the real event would feel like a letdown.

Instead, everything transpired as perfectly as I could have hoped for. It felt as close as I will ever come to standing on another planet. The light turned weird and unfamiliar and the spectacle of the sun’s corona shooting out from behind the moon was a sight that no human language has developed words to describe. It was a transfixing experience that felt physical and spiritual and mind-blowing. I can’t tell you what it’s like, you need to see it for yourself.

I have become an umbraphile. — Christie Aschwanden

SYLVA, N.C. — I left Manhattan on a Greyhound bus early Saturday, got picked up in Richmond, Virginia, traveled to Asheville, North Carolina on Sunday, and then finally made it to a small town on North Carolina’s tip called Sylva Monday afternoon. All for one minute and 44 seconds of totality.

Almost everyone who made the journey to the path to see the Great Eclipse of 2017 has a story like this. But it was totally warranted. The sky looked almost like something you’d see in a game of Pac Man. Slowly, small bites were taken from a spectacularly glowing orange sun.

“It’s happening!” “It looks amazing — you gotta see this.” Our neighbors on the shaded patch of grass we found next to a baseball field included kids, some amateur astronomers and even a few eclipse chasers who said they’d be back again. As the partial eclipse sank in, the sun looked almost like a moon, turning into a crescent. The tree’s shadows began to spin sun spots and you could see crescents everywhere.

Suddenly it turned cold and dark — and weird. The moon completely covered the sun, with its rays just bleeding out. The street lights went up, and totality produced a field full of gasps and applause almost in unison.

And then, just like that, as if nothing had happened, the sun’s rays overtook the moon and life was normal again. — Meena Ganesan

Christine Laskowski was a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Rebecca Boyle is a science journalist covering a variety of topics, from astronomy to zoonoses. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and her work regularly appears in publications including Popular Science and New Scientist.

Christie Aschwanden was a lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight. Her book “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery” is available here.

Meena Ganesan was a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.